In the run-up to the US midterm elections, a trend emerged that set off alarm bells for those concerned about the stability of United States democracy. An estimated 345 Republican candidates embraced the lie that the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump through massive fraud, according to an analysis by the Brookings Institution, a Washington, DC-based think-tank.
Those fears eased slightly as the Republican Party underperformed in the polls on November 8, disappointing predictions of a “red wave” at the ballot box.
Election deniers lost closely watched contests in swing states and failed to gain new ground in about 95 percent of statewide races, according to an analysis by States United Action, an organisation that tracked races with election deniers on the ballot.
On Monday, President Joe Biden hailed the midterm results as a “strong rejection of election deniers at every level”.
Speaking to reporters ahead of this week’s Group of 20 (G20) summit in Indonesia, Biden described the outcome as a testament to the strength of democratic institutions.
“What these elections showed is that there’s a deep and unwavering commitment in America to preserving and protecting and defending democracy,” he said.
In the November 8 midterms, election deniers competed in races at virtually every level of government. The fight to control the US Senate, for instance, came down to battleground states such as Nevada and Arizona, where election deniers like Adam Laxalt and Blake Masters lost by slim margins to their Democratic opponents.
But equally important were state and local races that influence voter access and have the potential to shape the outcome of presidential elections in swing states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Arizona.
Such candidates often embraced a dark and conspiratorial view of the electoral process they would be tasked with helping to oversee. Jim Marchant, a Republican candidate for secretary of state in Nevada, claimed on a podcast that the state had not had a real election since 2006 and that representatives had been “installed by a deep-state cabal”.
The gubernatorial race in Arizona was one of the highest-profile contests, with outspoken Republican Kari Lake narrowly losing to Democrat Katie Hobbs. It took nearly a week to count the ballots. Lake had made the false assertions that the 2020 election was stolen a cornerstone of her campaign.
Lake did not concede when the results were announced, instead tweeting: “Arizonans know BS when they see it.”
Such candidates posed an unusual dilemma for the US political system: What would happen if election officials used their positions to undermine public faith in the legitimacy of elections?
“One thing is clear: American voters stepped up to defend democracy in this election. In most places, we saw voters decisively reject election deniers who want power over their votes,” Joanna Lydgate, CEO of States United Action, told Al Jazeera in a statement shared over email.
“That said, election denial will continue to be a threat, and we need to stay vigilant for 2024.”
The current trend towards election denial gained steam when former President Trump spread false claims that the 2020 election had been stolen through “massive fraud” and a “rigged election”, pressuring officials to overturn the will of the voters.
Those claims have been struck down in court for lack of evidence. Republican election officials like Georgia’s Brad Raffensperger also assured voters that the election results were valid and that the claims of rampant fraud were baseless.
But election denial has become widespread among Republican voters and officials alike. A Monmouth University poll in late September found that 61 percent of Republican voters doubted the integrity of the 2020 election.
The analysis by the Brookings Institution also noted that key swing states like Arizona, Michigan and Pennsylvania had relatively high concentrations of election deniers running in the midterms, compared to similarly populous but left-leaning states like New York and California.
Because elections are overseen at the state level in the US, political figures such as governors, secretaries of state and attorneys general have varying levels of responsibility over what happens at the polls.
In Arizona, for example, the secretary of state is responsible for certifying election results. But in Nevada, the secretary of state is not tasked with this responsibility. He or she can, however, push counties to institute policies that affect voter access.
Across the country, far-right candidates ran for such positions, often with Trump’s endorsement after embracing his claims of fraud.
Doug Mastriano, a Trump-endorsed candidate for governor in Pennsylvania, said that the state’s votes in the 2020 presidential election should not have been certified and promised to appoint a secretary of state who shared that belief.
Mark Finchem, a Republican who ran for secretary of state in Arizona, introduced legislation to nullify the state’s votes long after the 2020 election had taken place. He also called for ballots to be counted by hand, a method that experts say is more error-prone and less efficient.
In Michigan, Kristina Karamo, the Republican nominee for secretary of state, filed a lawsuit seeking to block tens of thousands of votes from the city of Detroit from being counted in the midterms, citing fraud.
Such candidates also vowed to roll back measures meant to make voting easier, such as mail-in ballots, which Trump depicted as illegitimate and prone to fraud.
Mastriano, Finchem and Karamo all lost their races, and a judge dismissed Karamo’s lawsuit as “intolerable”, chastising her for failing to provide “any shred of evidence” for her claims.
Marchant, seen as an architect of the push for deniers to run for secretary-of-state positions in swing states, also lost his race in Nevada.
Such defeats resulted in a collective sigh of relief from elections experts and academics, who say that unfounded claims about the corruption of the electoral process can undermine faith in democracy.
“The popularity of those claims with Republican voters is concerning, but we didn’t see success in a lot of battleground states,” Thad Kousser, a professor of political science at the University of California at San Diego, told Al Jazeera. “In 2024, this means that elections in swing states will be overseen by relatively even-handed figures.”
Kousser sees another cause for celebration: Many of the most ardent election deniers fell short by substantial margins. Both Karamo and Mastriano lost by more than 14 points.
A continuing threat
But in western states such as Arizona and Nevada, some of the standard bearers of election denial posted strong results, with margins thin enough to open the door to unsubstantiated claims that elections there had been “stolen”.
In Arizona, Finchem and Lake seized on technical issues with voting machines in Maricopa County to push false claims of fraud on Election Day. Officials apologised for the inconvenience and promised that every vote would be counted.
“Brand new tabulation machines.” If this is what brand new gives us what do old machines do? Go vote and don’t let the Marxists disenfranchise your vote. Check it twice and make sure the machine counts your vote correctly. #VoteFinchem
— Mark Finchem #JustFollowTheLaw VoteFinchem.com (@RealMarkFinchem) November 8, 2022
The situation in Maricopa County was already highly combustible. Conspiracy theories about election fraud had led to an influx of death threats and harassment against election workers, pushing some out of their jobs entirely, according to reporting by Reuters.
One message received over the summer said election workers would be tied to cars and dragged through the streets. In October, the US Department of Justice expressed concern over voter intimidation following reports of armed men in Arizona monitoring outdoor ballot boxes.
On Election Day, Trump joined Lake and Finchem in spreading claims of fraud.
“Here we go again?” Trump said on the website Truth Social. “The people will not stand for it!!”
Such comments from powerful figures in the Republican Party have led democracy advocates to warn against premature celebration. Election deniers did win powerful midterm races largely in Republican-leaning states, including at least five governors’ seats and races for secretary of state in places like Indiana and Wyoming.
“Our democracy withstood an important test, and that’s because of the voters,” Lydgate from States United Action said in a statement. “But we need to remember that the election denier movement isn’t going anywhere as we look to 2024. This is a continuing threat.”